Principal shares some lessons learnt

Jane Garvey is retiring as principal of the Mac.Robertson Girls High School.
Jane Garvey is retiring as principal of the Mac.Robertson Girls High School.

THE Mac.Robertson Girls High School, or ''Mac.Rob'' as it is known, is a Melbourne institution in both the literal and colloquial meaning of the word.

The elite selective-entry state school - established in Kings Way in 1934 thanks to a £40,000 donation from chocolate king Sir MacPherson Robertson - tops the state's VCE results almost every year.

This year it again excelled, receiving the equal highest median subject score of 38/50, and pipped only by Lauriston Girls School in the percentage of subject scores of 40 and over.

Mac.Rob, like other academically selective-entry state schools, is loved and loathed in equal measure. Alumni speak of the joy and relief of being among like-minded, bright students, at a school where it really is hip to be square.

However, other schools, both state and private, gnash their teeth at the prospect of losing their top students. Balwyn High principal Deborah Harman last year reportedly insisted that staff inform her if parents requested references for students.

And academics claim that hot-housing students in selective schools creates an apartheid education system, warning that ''skimming the cream'' disadvantages the less academically able students left behind.

It's a view that Mac.Rob principal Jane Garvey, 63, who retired on Friday after nine years at the helm, describes as a ''sophist argument''.

''Very able students really do not have a responsibility to other students to lift their results. No one's really supporting them but they have a responsibility to the rest of the class? I don't get that. I think we have a responsibility as a society to support our highly able students and we … will be so much better off if we do that.''

Ms Garvey believes it is particularly important for girls to be able to admit they are clever, and to unashamedly work to their ability. ''I think [selective-entry schools] are very important indeed - I would defend their existence to the death.''

Ms Garvey, a former history and English teacher, came to Mac.Rob in 2004 after an 11-year stint as assistant principal at Blackburn High. She found a school that achieved stellar results but relied too much on a ''stand and deliver'' style of teaching. Teachers also tended to work in isolation - ''there wasn't a lot of sharing, it was a bit competitive''. She encouraged them to work together, to use technology in the classroom and to move away from a culture where teachers were the repository of all knowledge.

Initially there was resistance from staff who questioned the need to fix a school that was clearly not broken, but Ms Garvey persevered. ''My attitude is that things need to change in order to stay the same,'' she says. ''I think the results we've seen have been amazing.''

Another thing Ms Garvey has sought to discourage is tutoring. Many parents pay for tutors to prepare their children for the competitive entrance exams in year 8 - more than 1200 students compete for 225 year 9 places - and some continue to have tutors while at Mac.Rob.

Ms Garvey questions the efficacy of coaching, saying the three-hour entrance exam is designed to test a student's potential - including problem solving and reasoning - rather than knowledge.

She says far too much emphasis is also placed on tutoring when students are at Mac.Rob. ''It takes away their time, it takes away their life. Some have a tutor in every subject. You have to wonder how helpful that is, especially if the tutor is doubling their homework, when in fact they would probably be better off going and playing a game of tennis.''

Mac.Rob is developing a policy that will recommend limits on the amount of homework students do at night. Ms Garvey also focused on wellbeing, including effective work habits and the importance of sleep and nutrition, after the students' attitude-to-school survey last year identified increasing levels of stress as students get to year 12.

''They put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves,'' Ms Garvey says. ''A lot come from migrant families who are very keen for their daughters to achieve high levels of success and go into good careers.''

Ms Garvey doesn't hesitate when asked of her proudest achievement during the past nine years. ''The students themselves. They are fantastic, so energising to be with, full of enthusiasm, optimism and goodwill.''

This story Principal shares some lessons learnt first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.